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Socialism or Your Money Back

The first issue of the Socialist Standard appeared in September 1904 as the “official organ of the Socialist Party of Great Britain”. The Socialist Party, or SPGB, had been founded in June of the same year by ex-members of the Social Democratic Federation dissatisfied with its lack of internal democracy and with its policy of pursuing reforms of capitalism instead of concentrating on campaigning for socialism.

For them, the sole aim of a socialist party ought to be Socialism, defined as a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by and in the interest of the whole community. They took the view that such a society could only be brought into being through the political action of the working class, as the class of those compelled by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary, when a majority of them had come to realise that they were living in an exploitative, class-divided society and that their interest lay, as the exploited class, in converting the means of production into the common property of society under the democratic control of all the people.

With this approach, and knowing that a majority of their fellow workers were not class conscious in this sense, the members of the new party saw their main task as to propagate socialist ideas amongst their fellow workers. To this end they ran street corner meetings, held public lectures, organised education classes, debated against other parties, contested elections, handed out leaflets, sold pamphlets-—and produced the Socialist Standard.

The Socialist Standard has appeared every month since September 1904, analysing contemporary political, economic and social events and expounding aspects of socialist theory such as Marxian economics and the materialist conception of history. As such its back numbers are an invaluable source of historical material about the period in which they appeared. They also provide a running commentary from a socialist point of view on the key events of the twentieth century as they happened.

Because the Socialist Standard was aimed at the average literate working man and woman—for most of its existence its main outlet was sales at public meetings—it was written in an accessible style that has been compared to popular science writing. In fact, this was essentially how its writers—all of them writing in their free time out of conviction—saw what they were doing. The articles were signed, but discreetly, as the writers were regarded as expressing the view of the party not a personal view.

To mark the centenary of its foundation and of its monthly journal, the Socialist Party is publishing this selection of articles from the Socialist Standard over the last hundred years. Only 69 of the well over ten thousand that must have appeared over the period have been chosen. A choice of what type of article to put in had to be made and it was decided that the articles should be what the Socialist Standard said at the time about the key events in the century that most people will have heard of—such as the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the first Labour Government, the General Strike, to go only as far as the 1920s. The articles have been grouped by period, with a short modern introduction.

Inevitably, other types of article had to be omitted, such as basic statements of the case against capitalism or for socialism (interesting as it would have been to compare how this was expressed over the decades) and theoretical articles on aspects of socialist theory (which could have provided material for a separate book—the Socialist Standard had plenty to say on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Rosa Luxemburg, Daniel De Leon, Lenin, Trotsky and the others as well as on anarchism and syndicalism).

Also having to be omitted are all but two of the articles, which began to appear with increasing regularity from the 1970s onward, dealing with some of the practical aspects of how a socialist society—as a democratic society and one with no buying and selling or money—could function and orient the production and distribution of wealth to meet people’s needs. Excluding such articles was a difficult decision, especially as the Socialist Party is particularly proud of the fact that one of the things we have succeeded in doing over the past hundred years has been to have kept alive the original idea of what a socialist society was to be—a classless, stateless, frontierless, wageless, moneyless society, to define it somewhat negatively, or, more positively, a world community in which the natural and industrial resources of the planet will have become the common heritage of all humanity, a democratic society in which free and equal men and women co-operate to produce the things they need to live and enjoy life, to which they have free access in accordance with the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.

A hundred years ago, when the Socialist Party was formed, there was widespread agreement that this was what Socialism meant, despite disagreements as to how to get there. Unfortunately, as a result of the failure in the intervening period of both gradualist reformism and Leninist dictatorship this is no longer the case. Reformists, who believed that capitalism could be gradually transformed through a series of social reform measures into a better society, themselves ended up being transformed into routine managers of the capitalist system. The Bolsheviks, who seized power as a minority under Lenin and Trotsky in Russia in 1917, ended up developing capitalism there in the form of a state capitalism under a one-party dictatorship. Both failures have given socialism a quite different—and unattractive—meaning: state ownership and control, even state dictatorship, which is what, as the Socialist Standard was pointing out even before both policies were tried, is more properly called state capitalism.

This has been represented as the “failure of socialism”. But socialism in its original sense has never been tried. If those who are committed to the interest of the majority class of wage and salary earners and who want a better society to replace capitalism are not to make the same mistakes of reformism and minority revolution that dominated radical thinking and action in the twentieth century, they need to return to the original idea of socialism and to the understanding that the quickest way to get there is to campaign for Socialism directly and as a matter of urgency. This book is aimed at contributing to that understanding.


May 2004